Commentary No : 2017 / 40
6 min read

For the many, the month of May brings the joy of the best days of spring. People energized by the blaze of the sun and the blossom of nature fall into the reverie of the summer. One can notice a general livelihood in the month of May. However, for some, the month of May resurrects other images which are, allas, painted with sorrow; the misery of the choking muggy heat of the cattle wagons and the cold winds that penetrate into the soul; despair of the never ending railroad tracks disappearing into the Urals and Central Asia, and the endless darkness of the waves of the Black Sea; the distress of being uprooted from the native land and being separated from the loved ones; and the anxiety of the obscurity of the new destinations imposed by the invaders. In brief, the month of May signifies the terror of the forced exile.

These are the images that the month of May resurrects in the minds of the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians, whose ancestors were deported from their native lands; the green peninsula of Crimea and the majestic highlands of the Caucasus, and found a new home in Anatolia and elsewhere. 18 May and 21 May are observed by the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians, respectively, as the commemorative days of their forced exiles.

The Tsarist Russia’s Expansionism and the Exodus of the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians

The dark clouds for the Crimean Tatars and the Circassian appeared on the horizon by the late 18th century, when the Tsarist Russia stepped up its southward expansion. Crimea was annexed by the Tsarist Russia in April 1783. This resulted in the massive emigration of the indigenous Crimean Tatars from the peninsula to present-day Romania, Balkans, and Turkey, which were then Ottoman lands. Whereas in 1778 there were approximately 500,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea constituting 95% of the total population, this number fell to 171,751 by 1793. The emigration of the Crimean Tatars continued in the coming decades that resulted not only in the erosion of the Crimean Tatar population, but also in the loss of the human capital in the peninsula. Meanwhile, the Slavic population both in percentage and in real numbers unnaturally increased as a result of the replacement of the Crimean Tatars by the Slavs in line with the long-term demographic policy of the Russian Empire that sought to Slavicize the annexed lands.


Tatar Population in Crimea (1793-1994)


1793 (1)

1802 (2)

1862 (9)

1923 (3)

1939 (4)


1970 (6)

1989 (7)

1991 (7)

1994 (7)

Crimean Tatars












Source: “Ethnic Composition of Crimea,” International Committee for Crimea, 1999, accessed May 23, 2017,

The Russian annexation of Crimea was a prelude of the similar tragedy that was to fall on the Caucasus. In the same years, Tsarist Russia began the invasion of the Caucasus, a process that lasted almost a century between 1763 and 1864. The struggle of the Circassians to defend their lands against the invading Tsarist forces intensified by 1817. However, Tsarist armies succeeded in repressing the Circassian defense and on 21 May 1864 the Circassian resistance surrendered to Russia.

This was the beginning of the exodus of the Circassians by the Tsarist Russia, accompanied by de-nativization, and Slavicization and colonization of the Caucasus by the Armenians that were brought to the region by the Tsarist Russia. As a consequence of the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Circassians, approximately 1.5 million people (approximately 90% percent of the native Circassian) were deported mainly to the Ottoman lands. Many of those people lost their lives during the deportation and afterwards because of the inhumane conditions of the exile. Today in Turkey and other places which host Circassian communities, 21 May is observed as the commemorative day of the forced deportation and ethnic cleansing of the Circassians.   

The majority of the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians ended up in the present-day Turkey. They constructed new lives in this new country. Thankfully, their host country did not hesitate to embrace the new comers as its own. Likewise, these uprooted people adopted the new country as their own and took strong roots in their new land.

The Tragedy that was Repeated in the 20th Century

However, tragedies imposed on the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians in April 1783 and on 21 May 1864 went on throughout decades. De-nativization and Slavicisation of Crimea and the Caucasus continued. Once sovereign peoples, Crimean Tatars in Crimea and the Circassians in the Caucasus were reduced into peoples constituting the population of the Imperial Russia. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, in December 1917 Crimean Tatars under the leadership of Noman Celebicihan, the Crimean Tatar politician, lawyer, and the Mufti of Crimea, Lithuania, and Poland declared the independent Crimea People’s Republic. This independent statehood lasted only until late-February 1918, when the 40,000-troop strong Bolshevik army crushed the Crimean Tatar forces composed of 3,000 soldiers.

However, a much more horrific tragedy comparable to the post-1783 and 1864 tragedies were yet to come for the entire Crimean Tatar population in Crimea and some Circassian peoples.

On 18 May 1944, the deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population in Crimea began with the order of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Approximately 230,000 Crimean Tatars were packed in cattle wagons and sent to the Urals and Central Asia without adequate nutrition and other necessary conditions of survival. The journey lasted ten to fifteen days. Crimean Tatars perished in great numbers during and in the aftermath of the journey. When a year passed after 18 May 1944, the Crimean Tatar population reduced by 45%. Today, Crimean Tatars commemorate this great tragedy that they call Sürgünlük (the Exile) on every 18 May.

Between August 1943 and November 1944, Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingushs, Balkars, Kabardins, Karapapaks, Lazes, and Meskhetian Turks of the Caucasus were also exiled to Central Asia by the orders of the Soviet authorities.   

Imperial Russian Policy of De-Turkification and Slavicization of its Southern Flanks  

Although, Soviet propaganda machine manufactured false allegations and myths to legitimize the deportation of the Crimean Tatars and the Caucasian peoples, such as the accusation of collaboration with the Nazis, the real intent was to clean the Soviet borderlands close to Turkey from Turkic and Muslim peoples, as a continuation of the above mentioned demographic policy of the Tsarist Russia. As to that, one interesting fact is that while some of these peoples later on were permitted to return back to their native lands, this right was denied to the Crimean Tatars and the Meskhetian Turks.

The return of the Crimean Tatars to their native land became possible only by the end of the 1980’s as a result of their long-lasting, resolute and faithful struggle, when the collapse of the USSR began. Accordingly, whereas in 1979 there were 5,422 Crimean Tatars in Crimea (0.2% of the total population), this number grew to 38,365 (1.6% of the total population) in 1989, and 246,073 (10.8% of the total population) in 2001. However, this trend was dramatically cut off by the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. After the annexation, Crimean Tatar self-government bodies were outlawed and some 10,000-15,000 Crimean Tatars left the peninsula for the fear of the Russian oppression. As to that, some prominent scholars claim that Russia, indeed, seeks the de-Tatarization of the Crimea and put oppressive measures into practice to initiate such a process. It remains to be seen how the Crimean Tatars will fare and whether they will be able to have a say for their future.


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